Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

By Doug Taylor

Leading is not about managing and managing is not leadership. Today’s leaders need to be able to communicate, have a sense of
confidence, hold to a vision, and be creative.

Bob Dylan’s famous song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” influenced a generation about its leaders and their responsibility. This generation is no different. We are involved in a tsunami of change in our politics, business, religion, and world affairs. There is little doubt that this is a time when everyone needs and talks about leadership but so few leaders seem to exhibit it. Those in charge, whether in politics, business, or religion seem to have abandoned the ideal of leadership for the “rewards” of power, money, and influence. With apologies to Peter, Paul, and Mary, where have all the leaders gone? Gone to power every one.

Leadership is usually discussed from a top-down perspective. Leaders or perceived leaders in business, politics, and the community provide their views on what makes good leaders. With few exceptions, there are thousands of books, articles, conferences, and blogs about leadership, but what is rarely examined is the view of leaders by those being led. We thought it would be interesting to look into what makes a good leader from that perspective. So we interviewed those in the working trenches. And we were surprised. They did not want to talk about leadership or more specifically their bosses. The reasons were many and varied but boiled down to concern over how their comments would be viewed by the people they reported to.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised. In September 2008, Adecco USA, the United State’s third-largest employer and a division of the world’s largest recruitment and workforce solutions provider, compiled its first Employer Report Card just in time for back to school and the fall recruiting season. The bosses nearly failed. Companies averaged the equivalent of a “C.” The Adecco Employer Report Card is a way for companies to gauge how their employees view their efforts in leadership, communications, equality, work-life balance, and diversity and to create fair and balanced workforce policies. “Employers should take these survey results as a wakeup call,” says Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer and senior vice-president of human resources for Adecco USA. “Despite the slowing economy, it is more challenging than ever to recruit and retain top talent.”

We took a bit of a different theme and interviewed people that hold positions of responsibility and leadership but also have to report “up the line.” Certain themes emerged from these thoughtful and reflective people. Leading is not about managing and managing is not leadership. Giving orders, expecting to be obeyed, and damn the consequences, is neither managing nor leading. Today’s leaders need to be able to communicate, have a sense of confidence, hold to a vision, and be creative.

Bev McPhee, senior managing consultant for strategy and change with IBM in Victoria, has very clear ideas about what makes a great leader. She works with government and private-sector leaders to help them undertake organizational change. A significant difference she has noticed is that the public-sector leaders are usually much more creative in their leadership styles than the private sector because they have to be.

In the private sector, leaders use the carrot of money to motivate, even though every study ever done on motivation suggests that it is not the money that people respond to. In the public sector, the money option is not open to managers, so they work with various techniques to motivate, cajole, and lead and, in the long run, it is effective. She has noticed there are five factors that identify leaders from managers. Leaders inspire a shared vision, they enable people to think for themselves, they encourage the heart, they challenge the process, and, most importantly, they are role models.

McPhee is also a runner and her model of a leader is fellow runner Anna McIntosh. McPhee wanted to meet a certain time in last year’s Victoria 10K and told McIntosh, an elite runner who would usually have run well ahead of her. But McIntosh’s immediate response was “let’s do this together.” During the run, she would drop back once in a while to run beside McPhee, no words spoken, just pacing and breathing. Over the race distance, McIntosh did this several times until the last couple of hundred metres when she ran with McPhee almost to the finish line. Then she fell back a pace, put her hand on McPhee’s back, and gave her a little push. McPhee met her goal and beat her friend’s time. And she understood that leadership is not about being the best, winning, or proving you are better: it is about sharing, encouraging, challenging, enabling, and being a role model.

Gord Duval has more bosses than anyone would want. As director of sales and marketing at Streetlight Intelligence, he reports to a boss, a board of directors, and company shareholders. His views on leadership have been honed by a career in business where he has seen both great and terrible leaders. He sums up his views on leadership with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, “I may be wrong but I am never in doubt.” He suggests that people are led best by those who have the confidence and conviction to achieve success, which, in turn, inspires those to follow.

A real issue for today’s leaders, according to Duval, is the sense of entitlement and lack of loyalty in employees, which make it very difficult to motivate people. Really good leaders build the right teams with people who have leadership qualities, are personally motivated, and are driven to succeed. “Put a group of people like that together and leadership thrives,” he says.

As Duval notes, “There are many leadership styles — people-oriented, task-oriented, charismatic, autocratic, and transformational — but the leaders who are successful are the ones with the confidence and conviction to make the difficult choices.” He adds that it is also sometimes difficult to identify the real leaders in an organization and uses the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of 1984-1990 to prove the point. “History,” he points out, “refers to the five Stanley Cups the team won in that period as ‘led by Wayne Gretzky,’ yet it was Glen Sather who rebuilt the team in the early 1980s and brought in the likes of Messier, Coffey, Kurri, and Fuhr to support Gretzky. It was at that level that leadership brought success.”

Duval also bemoans the currently popular leadership style of “building communities and trying to please everyone. That’s not leadership; that’s management by committee.”

Rose Arsenault helps people find jobs. Not just the top jobs, just jobs that match the abilities of the applicant to the requirements of the position. As the manager of Placement Group Victoria, she is in touch with leaders and those who think they can lead all the time. Her call on good leadership is summed as those that “lead with an invisible hand.”

“It’s about being able to communicate, which involves both talking and listening, trusting people, dealing directly with difficult issues, and knowing your own strengths,” says Arsenault. “If you possess those attributes you lead. Without them you simply manage.”

In Victoria, she says that the larger firms are much better at hiring people with potential than small firms, yet the little companies need strong personalities to help them grow. Her suggestion to small companies is that they need to be more creative in the reasons they hire someone and in identifying ways to provide opportunities for employees to show their leadership capabilities.

She is concerned about the future crop of those supposedly headed for the top of the career ladder, particularly the attitudes and expectations of new university graduates. “They are so unrealistic,” she laments. “But worse, she explains, is their lack of a core leadership quality. They have lost the
art of communicating and, if you can’t connect with people, you can’t lead.”

Connie Fair is the CEO of the BC Assessment Authority and is ultimately responsible for making sure all property owners get their tax assessments. If leading is about commitment and loyalty, then she is at the top of the list according to everyone we spoke to playing telephone tag trying to set up an interview. “Everyone likes Connie. She’s remarkable,” says Larry Jefferson, a consultant who has worked extensively for the organization. A true leader gets people to commit above and beyond the norm. She seems to do that by example. Our interview time was finalized with a personal phone call from one of the people she works with. On a Saturday afternoon.

Thoughtful and intelligent, she has taken time to figure out what makes a good leader and has come to the conclusion that good leaders are true to themselves. “People who run organizations, large or small, need to be engaging and passionate about what they do,” says Fair. Working in an organization with 700 employees and 19 offices throughout British Columbia that assessed at $5 billion in 2007, she understands that clear communication, delivered with a constant message and no hidden agendas, is critical for success.

Her work is customer and calendar driven. “Customers are the touchstone of our business, and you have to build a working culture that understands that it is not only about delivering property assessment, but it is also about there being no surprises for the customer when they get their assessment.”

To meet the time demands, she uses a project management approach throughout the organization. Hiring and training of staff are essential. Fair says she hires for attitude and leadership abilities rather than skill set. “You can train to undertake a technical job. You can’t train passion, responsibility, and commitment,” says Fair. As part of her leadership style, she also uses a constant process of performance appraisal. “Employee success is important, but if they don’t know how they are measuring up, it is difficult for them to succeed. For those new employees on probation for the first year, they undergo monthly appraisals.”

Fair has been the CEO of BC Assessment just since May of last year. When asked what the best part of being in charge was, the response was immediate: “Driving changes and thinking about what needs to be done and then having the opportunity to help make that change.”

Leading, according to Fair, is about a personal relationship but that is difficult to implement with so many employees scattered around the province. Her personal mandate is to visit every BC Assessment office each year. “Meeting with people, getting their input,
and communicating the vision is critical for our success,” she says. But the most important role of those in charge is the “need to be thoughtful and caring about the people you work with and understand that work can also be re-arranged, but family commitments come first.”

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the famous theologian and medical missionary to Africa, once said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing.” Karl Monger learned that lesson well. He was in the U.S. Army for a decade until retirement in 1993 and is now a manager at a Kansas construction crane firm and, on the side, writes a blog on military topics.

“The first time I went to the field on tactical exercises involved staying in the woods for several days. When the supply sergeant set up the chow line — thermal insulated containers containing mashed potatoes, sliced ham, green beans, and a large container of iced tea — the soldiers lined up to get their food. As I walked up, my company commander motioned me over. The captain explained that out of a show of respect for the soldiers who carry the heaviest loads and who put themselves in the greatest harm’s way, I should wait. He pointed out how the corporals in charge of four soldiers let their four go first. The sergeants in charge of the corporals waited until their two corporals and their soldiers went through the line, then the sergeants went through. This went on through the ranks until all the enlisted soldiers received their food, then the captain motioned for me to go before him.”

His message was easy to grasp. He said simply, ‘Leaders eat last.’